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Films I Neglected To Review: Bad Night At Black Rock or The Iceman Killeth.
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Black Rock," "The Iceman," "Pieta," "Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf Goodman" and "Sightseers."

If the new horror thriller "Black Rock" had been made by a man, it would almost certainly be dismissed as tacky, exploitative and borderline sexist junk. In fact, it is the brainchild of a woman--Katie Aselton, who both came up with the story (her husband, mumble-core kingpin Mark Duplass wrote the screenplay) and directed the film--and it is still tacky, exploitative and borderline sexist junk. In what has been described in some quarters as "Deliverance" for women (and doesn't that sound enticing?), the story opens as three childhood friends (Aselton, Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell) who reunite after a long estrangement for a weekend of bonding on an empty island off the coast of Maine. While there, they encounter a trio of recently returned war veterans and while the two groups hit it off at first, things quickly take a turn for the worse and our unarmed heroines are forced into a desperate fight for survival.

In theory, the idea of a story of this type being told from a female perspective sounds interesting but in practice, it is a real mess--the story is one of those mind-numbing contraptions where everyone is required to act like an idiot in order to keep things going, all the characters are resoundingly unlikable and the psychology on display, in which the vets are depicted with all the subtlety that used to be deployed when presenting crazed Vietnam vets in exploitation films back in the day, is kind of offensive. Aselton is talented and I admire the fact that she took a chance on doing a project that few might have expected from her but as "Black Rock" unfortunately proves, just because you do something unexpected does not necessarily make it any good.

"The Iceman" tells the true story of Richard Kuklinski, an infamous contract killer who was alleged to have racked up over a hundred murders (including, according to rumor, having a hand in the demise of Jimmy Hoffa) before he was finally apprehended by the Feds in 1986. What was even more astounding is that even as he was whacking his targets over the years, he had a loving wife and family who were completely convinced that he was merely a prosperous investment banker right up until the moment the cuffs were slapped on him. You would think that anyone could spin an interesting story out of how Kuklinski was able to so successfully compartmentalize his life in order to be both a sincere family man and a hardcore killer that not even those closest to him suspected anything but that is not the case here.

Instead, director/co-writer Ariel Vroman offers up a disappointingly shallow greatest hits--literally--look at Kuklinski's life that is more concerned with showing viewers an endless parade of gruesome murders without offering any insight into the person committing them. The film also wastes a strong supporting cast, including the likes of Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, James Franco and Stephen Dorff, by making them little more than a delivery system for increasingly unfortunate hairstyle choices. The only performance that really does work--it is by far the best thing about the film--is the absolutely chilling turn delivered by Michael Shannon as Kuklinski. He sells the contradictions of his character so convincingly that it almost makes you wish that someone else would try making another version of the Kuklinski story and give him the chance to show off his compelling take on the man within the framework of a movie more deserving of it.

If you are looking for the most disturbing film in theaters right now, "Pieta," the extremely dark drama from acclaimed Korean filmmaker Ki-duk Kim, should more than fit the bill. The films tells the twisted story of a brutal loan shark (Jeong-jin Lee) who preys on the local poor by loaning them money at usurious terms--if they fail to pay, he maims and cripples them and then takes their insurance money as part of their debt to him. One day, he is visited by an old woman (Min-joo Je) who claims to be his long-lost mother and after a period of nasty mistrust, he finds himself beginning to reexamine his life even as Mom begins to show a streak of ruthlessness to rival that of her child. Thanks to its deliberately contemplative pace and moments of extreme nastiness, this is not a film that is going to appeal to too many viewers but those willing to handle the extremes places that Ki-duk takes them to will find it an engrossing tale of how the idea of redemption can touch even the blackest of hearts, albeit in the bleakest manner imaginable.

The last few years have seen a number of documentaries focusing on the clothing designers, hairdressers and magazine editors that have become the arbiters of taste in the fashion industry, so it was perhaps inevitable that a film would arrive focusing on one of the legendary stores that sell that vision to anyone with a high enough credit limit. Unfortunately, the best thing about "Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf's" is its title and that was taken directly from an old New Yorker cartoon. Matthew Miele's film takes a look at New York's famous Bergdorf Goodman department store through the eyes of everyone from its owners to the fashion directors to the people who design their world-famous window displays, not to mention a roll call of top designers, editors and other observers. Not surprisingly, everyone speaks about the place in the most glowing terms imaginable and after a while, the film begins to take on the form of an extended promotional film or something that might be played at a testimonial dinner. The best parts of the film are those involving long-time personal shopper Betty Halbreich, whose tart-tongued observations about her work and her clients cut through the otherwise fawning proceedings in such inspired ways that she could easily be the focus of her own movie--too bad that it wasn't this one.

If you have ever wondered what might result if a couple of the painfully ordinary middle-class British characters in a typical Mike Leigh melodrama decided to hit the road and go on a gory crime spree, then the new U.K. import "Sightseers" is for you. It starts off normally enough as the put-upon Tina (Alice Lowe) leaves her overbearing mother for a few days to go on a road trip of the English countryside with genially bland boyfriend Chris (Steve Orem) but things hit a rough patch--literally--when Chris has words with a litterer at their first stop and then accidentally runs over the miscreant with his camper. Well, maybe "accidentally" isn't quite the word because of they progress, Chris, who fancies himself an aspiring writer despite having no noticeable skill at it, begins to dispatch those who dare to mar his vacation in increasingly grisly ways and before long, even Tina finds herself joining in the fun as well.

The film was directed by Ben Wheatley, a British filmmaker who has become a cult favorite on both sides of the pond thanks to his previous exercises in gruesome genre-bending, "Down Terrace" and "Kill List." By comparison, this is a far more straightforward exercise in black comedy and for a while, it does work thanks to the combination of the tighter focus on Wheatley's part and the funny performances from the two leads. After a while, however, the film grows increasingly repetitive and even the most inattentive viewer can see its final joke coming literally a mile away. I can't quite recommend it but I do have a certain grudging admiration for it and it does supply the first real suggestion that Ben Wheatley may one day be deserving of the Next Big Thing tag that many want to hang on him: I may not want to see this one again anytime soon but I am now curious to see what he comes up with next.

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originally posted: 05/18/13 03:14:32
last updated: 05/18/13 07:39:43
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